Entangled Frames: New Materialist Feminism and Queer Archives

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Like many scholars in our field, I’ve become fascinated by the affordances and challenges of new materialist thought to rhetorical inquiry.

Specifically, I’m interested in how new materialism might inflect understandings of archival rhetoric, highlighting that “the archive” is not (only) a location or repository of rhetoric but is also, itself, an ongoing rhetorical achievement. And since my work considers the rhetorical formation of the Williams-Nichols Archive, an archive of LGBTQ documents, artifacts, and books collected by activist David Williams and now housed at the University of Louisville, I’ve been trying to explore how new materialist theories—primarily feminist-oriented new materialisms—and queer theory can be leveraged together.

In this short blog post, then, I’d like to first briefly discuss my understanding of “new materialism,” which has gained some currency within the discipline over the past few years, and how particular theorists have highlighted its feminist implications. Then, I’ll explain how I see it intersecting with queer archival scholarship, specifically in the context of my research. Finally, I’ll pose questions and challenges I’m working through.

Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin describe new materialism as any approach “that does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature . . . [but gives]special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by [Cartesian] dualist thought” (85). Broadly, new materialisms exist as reactions to poststructuralism, reinserting matter into fields of thought that, as Karen Barad claims, have “granted [language]too much power” (801).

While there is a long tradition of considering the materiality of rhetoric in our work, Thomas Rickert notes that rhetorical approaches to materiality have often privileged discourse while leaving the rhetorics of matter, objects, and things under-discussed (21). On the other hand, Laura Micciche has sought to incorporate embodiment into our conversations on new materialism, noting an “aversion to diverse fleshiness reaffirmed by the overrepresentation of men” in new materialist philosophy. Despite productive critiques, however, and as Micciche also argues, there are explicitly feminist strands of new materialism that stand to inform our work in productive ways (491).

Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad, for example, both develop new materialisms to complicate thinking that separates language, matter, and embodiment. In an interview on new materialism, Braidotti writes that we should consider the body as neither fundamentally biological nor socially constructed, but rather “a point of overlap between the physical, symbolic, and the sociological” (33). Similarly, Barad eschews any attempt to separate matter, bodies, and discourse, arguing that poststructural thought has overemphasized the ways that identities and bodies are linguistically constructed and not attended to the fact that both bodies and language are material emergences.

From Barad’s perspective, the inseparability of matter, meaning, and embodiment calls us to inquire into the material processes by which boundaries emerge—around humans, objects, and (as I’ll discuss further below) archives—and the ways that these emergences are never the effect of independent human agency but, rather, emerge from a diverse array of mutually transforming (in Barad’s terminology, “intra-acting”) forces. From Barad’s perspective, this view contributes to feminism by highlighting that gendered bodies are materially realized and that we need to include the non-human and the non-linguistic into our understandings of those realizations.

An attention to materiality, embodiment, and the emergent nature of meaning jibes with many conversations in queer rhetoric/theory. Jean Bessette, for example, claims that queerness and normativity are better understood in their local particularities as “shifting, fractured valences” and that an understanding of queer rhetoric “in situ” would “not presume in advance to know the shape of the regulations and ideals of either normativity or queerness” (155), an understanding of queerness-as-emergence that resonates with new materialism. Similarly, Jonathon Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes argue queer archives “suggest how a narrative of emerging—and changing—queer experience might be constructed over time.” And outside rhetoric and composition, both J. Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz provide explanations of “queer time” that can productively overlap with new materialist notions that experiences of time materialize in divergent and complex ways (a subject that would benefit from a much longer blog post).

To summarize, new materialist feminisms and queer theory/rhetoric share an attention to the emergent nature of embodiment, identity, and (gendered and sexual) meaning/difference. Taking this into consideration, I contend that synthesizing feminist new materialisms with queer theory can be useful for considering the rhetorical and historical formation of queer archives. And this synthesis has a number of (potential) benefits for my work and perhaps for considering the relationships between rhetoric, archives, and materiality more broadly.

First, reading new materialism and queer theory together helps emphasize the formation of the Williams-Nichols Archive as queer rhetoric rather than as a collection of queer or LGBT materials. In this sense, it highlights another level of queer rhetoric–”the slow methodological collection of testimony, texts, recordings, and visual artifacts that evidences an alternative moral universe, an alternative framework from which to shape a public and political agenda” (Parks). However, taking emergence as a guiding concept requires considering how the material formation of the archive–it’s collection, curation, and movements–lead and leads to transformations as it grows and becomes entangled with collectors, curators, universities, policies, public media, and (of course) researchers like myself. In sum, my project seeks to trace the emergence of boundaries that mark the archive under study, rather than take them as a given, and explore how those boundaries manifest queer and material rhetoric.

There is, moreover, an ethical imperative for me to consider my own positionality and its potential effects on my own entanglement in this project. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender male, I am attempting to engage this project in ways that speak with, not for, the voices that infuse the rhetorical formation of the Williams-Nichols Archive, and to find ways to do so that reflects “an ethos of humility, respect, and care” (Royster and Kirsch 21). The necessary balance will be enacting this research in ways that do not make the archive’s queerness incidental but also do not attempt to speak for that queerness from my own position as a researcher. Again, I am called to consider and account for my own entanglements with/in the archive.

I have (much) more thinking to do, but to tie this discussion back to theme of this blog carnival, my sense is that (both digital and physical) archives are often regarded as technologies by and with which scholars do research. By inquiring into the material-rhetorical formations of those technologies, I find that we can expand our sense of what Royster and Kirsch call the “dialogic relationship between past and present” that characterizes feminist inquiry (14), as well as better understand the deeply rhetorical nature of archives and their formation.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan and Jaqueline Rhodes. “Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive.” Enculturation, 2012. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Barad, Karen. “Posthuman Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs, vol. 28, no 3, 2003, pp. 801-31. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Barad, Karen. “Interview with Karen Barad.” New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, By Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin. Open Humanities P, 2012, pp. 48-70.

Bessette, Jean. “Queer Rhetoric in Situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164. Accessed 27 June 2017.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Interview with Rosi Braidotti.” New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, By Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin. Open Humanities P, 2012, pp. 19-37.

Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Open Humanities P, 2012.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2009.

Parks, Steve. “I Hear Its Chirping Coming From My Throat”: Activism, Archives, and the Long Road Ahead. Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017. Accessed 12 Dec 2017.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.


About Author(s)

I am a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition. My current research exists at the intersection of queer archives, new materialist rhetoric, and curatorial studies. Broadly, I am interested in the relationship between rhetoric and mediating technologies, including both analog media systems (such as physical archives) as well as digital ones. My scholarship has been published in Present Tense, Enculturation, and Kairos, where I also serve as an assistant editor. Feel free to go to rickwysocki.github.io to learn more about me and my work.

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